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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Pittura Metafisica: an Exploration of Metaphysical Painting

Albert Savinio, "Objects Abandoned in the Forest," 1928.  Timelessness achieved through a blending of the primeval forest with metallic-looking objects, many of modern design.   Savinio was de Chirico's brother.  

de Chirico, "Malinconia," ("Melancholy")
 1912
For the past six weeks we've been wrestling, on and off, with the idea of "Metaphysical Painting," spurred by the comprehensive Giorgio Morandi retrospective here in Rome. The term was originally Italian--Pittura Metafisica--having been invented by Giorgio de Chirico and long associated with de Chirico and the Futurist painter Carlo Carrà whom de Chirico met in Ferrara in 1917.  (De Chirico was born in Greece in 1886, lived in Italy beginning in 1909 and specifically in Rome from 1944 until his death in 1978.) The standard take on Metaphysical Painting, then, is that it was a short-lived "movement"--coinciding with the 2nd decade of the 20th century--and dominated by de Chirico and Carrà.








Some authorities include the still-life paintings of Giorgio Morandi, but only those done between 1918 and 1922, when the artist was doing self-consciously metaphysical work, including "Metaphysical Still Life" (1918, left).



Less often, some others are admitted to the metaphysical pantheon, including Felici Casorati, Massimo Campigli, George Grosz and Filippo de Pisis. The first metaphysical painting was de Chirico's "l'enigma di un pomeriggio d'autunno" ("The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon"), accomplished in Florence in 1910 after the artist experienced an epiphany at Santa Croce.


Carrà, "The Metaphysical Muse," 1917
Universal mannequin, dressed as
tennis player






















A general sense of Metaphysical Painting can be gleaned from the words and phrases used to describe and characterize the paintings: "dreamlike imagery," "impossible linear perspectives," an "almost architectural sense of stillness" (said to derive from Renaissance art), "eerie mood," "strange artificiality," "haunted streets one might encounter in dreams," "featureless mannequins."  There is general agreement that there is something disquieting about the work, that it speaks of "sorrow, disorientation, [and] nostalgia," that it offers "a world estranged from man."  Art historian Mariana Aguirre adds that metaphysical painting involved a change in what we understand an artist to be.  The standard idea is that the artist is a craftsman, learned in the styles, techniques and history that go with the trade.  The metaphysical artist is, instead, a "thinker and privileged seer," a self-conscious intellectual.

That all rings true to us, and these descriptive, and sometimes analytical, phrases may be all we need, or want, to understand the phenomenon.  But in the interest of clarifying--or one might say, murkifying--Metaphysical Painting, we found ourselves wanting to know about metaphysics.  Just what is metaphysics, anyway?

Franz Marc, "The Shepherds," 1912.  The horse is every horse,
the shepherds stripped to their naked essence, outside of time.
Well, it's not physics.  Although both physics and metaphysics seek to examine and explain things, physics (and science generally) wants empirical answers--proof--while metaphysics looks for "underlying principles that give rise to the unified natural world."  Put another way, metaphysics looks beyond or beneath science to observe something more fundamental.  On the other hand, it seems obvious that there are similarities between the breadth and timing of the painterly inquiries of de Chirico and others, and the scientific efforts of Einstein to explain the nature of matter.  

The word "unified" in "unified natural world" is important, because metaphysicians believe that there are "hidden connections between things," connections our senses tell us must and do exist, but which we do not and cannot see.  (There is something new-agey in that, something close to or bound up with religion, but we'll have to abandon that line of inquiry and go on.) 

Massimo Campigli, "The Gypsies," 1928.
Gypsies, acqueducts, a game of cards.
What's happened to time?
How can "things" be connected?  The answer to that question has to do with "space" and "time" and the relationship between space and time.  Normally we privilege--that is, favor, and emphasize--the present, and so do our painters, usually, painting (for example) a picture of people on a boat having a good time [Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party"]--at a particular moment in the present, or the past.  Metaphysics takes a different approach.

Perhaps, it hypothesizes, space and time don't depend on people at all.  Maybe space and time are substances that exist "independently" of their inhabitants.  If so, one can imagine--indeed, one can have--things from one "time" in the same frame, the same picture, the same space, as things from another time.  Of course, something like that happens in an antique shop, but for metaphysics there isn't really "another" time.  Indeed, time may not "pass"; past and present are one.  Stasis--or a sense of stasis--reigns.  

Mario Sironi, "Malinconia," 1927.   Modern man/woman,
trapped between the present and the aqueduct past.





Although Carrà was a Futurist and had much to do with metaphysical painting, it seems to us that the Futurists' sense of time was different.  Futurism wanted to show people engaged in a particular act at a particular time: a soccer player kicking a ball, a bicyclist riding, a plane in flight.  In contrast, metaphysical painters a) removed man b) deleted the privileged present, suggesting a unity of past and present, and c) eliminated movement, emphasizing a stasis designed to evoke the eternal, the mysterious, the ultimately unknowable core of the universe.   Stasis is central to de Chirico's work, as is the fusion of time(s), signified by his placement of Greek or Roman forms in the modern space of a 20th-century city.  

Poster for the German expressionist film,
"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," 1921





Why the 1910s?  For one thing, plumbing the depths for the "real" truth was part of the spirit of the age--for Einstein in physics, for Freud in psychoanalysis, for de Chirico in painting.  In addition, the heyday of metaphysical painting covers, and doubtless exists as a comment on, the decade of the Great War.  That said, much work in a metaphysical vein was done after 1920, and not only by painters such as Grosz and Alberto Savinio. The "impossible linear perspectives" of de Chirico appear in German expressionist cinema throughout the 1920s.







The use of metaphysical ideas in a contemporary painting.


It is common to run across recent works of art with metaphysical content.  Indeed, the apartment we inhabited recently had two of them: one a de Chiricoesque treatment that features a variety of forms, most of them geometric, isolated and yet somehow unified, suspended against a somewhat mysterious blue/green background.  In the other (right), two children sleep in a room whose shape has been distorted, perhaps to emphasize children's fear of the dark or being in bed. In this sense--the sense that metaphysical features can be and still are being used to achieve a goal, the metaphysical is still with us.




Similarly, today's graphic artist might employ the design sensibilities of the 1960s to attract buyers to a new line of bell-bottom jeans or mini-skirts.  Or, more germane, an advertising agency could employ a certain degree of metaphysical distortion of space to create a poster for a film noir production.  But to use metaphysical artistic practices is different from engaging metaphysical concepts and questions in the way that the founders or early practitioners did.  So it could be said that metaphysical art was significant conceptually only in its early years--certainly the decade of the 1910s, with declining intensity and curiosity in the 1920s and 1930s.  Indeed, metaphysical painting in Italy was under attack as early as 1917, when the term "metafisico" began to be used negatively. In an era of strong nationalist sentiment, the movement was vulnerable because its Italian roots were suspect.  Others saw it as overly intellectual (and perhaps not masculine enough for the Fascists), and one influential critic described it as "illustration" rather than painting.  

Bill  
de Chirico, "Red Tower," 1913



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